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Dealing with Negative Feedback from Group Exercise Participants

Receiving positive feedback from group exercise participants about your performance as a fitness instructor can make your day! It feels great to be praised and confirms that you’re on the right track with your teaching. Of course these compliments don’t validate you as a person or instructor—they just point out what people like about your classes.

What about negative comments? At best, negative feedback momentarily dampens your mood; at worst, it leaves you questioning your teaching abilities. No one likes to receive complaints or bad reviews about their performance—but you can’t please everyone all the time. It’s how you perceive and manage the feedback that counts.

When you break it down, there are probably four categories of feedback you might receive from group exercise participants. We’ve established that the first is positive (bring on the compliments!).

The other three are various degrees of less-than-positive feedback, ranging from useful to unkind. Knowing which scenario you’re dealing with can help make the process of fielding these critiques less stressful. Let’s break it down.

Scenario 1: Useful feedback

Examples:

The instructor plays the music too loud.

She teaches too many high-impact exercises.

His cuing is not clear and he asks us to cheer and holler too much. It gets tedious.

The instructor doesn’t seem very prepared for class. A lot of the exercises are confusing, and I feel like she’s winging it half the time.

This category is what some people might call “constructive criticism.” In other words, the comment provides an opportunity for you to improve your skills or approach. Receiving feedback in this category illuminates when you might need to re-evaluate a teaching technique or the way you conduct some aspect of your class.

While it’s tempting to dismiss negative feedback, always ask yourself this question first: “Is there (even a little) truth in this comment that could help me become a better instructor?” This category of negative feedback is the only one where the answer might legitimately be “yes.”

Let’s play off one of the examples above: too many high-impact exercises. Even if you teach an advanced class where most people can do all moves provided, you might still need to include more low-impact options for those with injuries or participants who can’t keep up with high impact. A participant is asking you in earnest to consider his or her needs more than you do now—take that feedback to heart.

How to proceed: If you receive the comment in written form or from your group exercise coordinator, reflect on possible changes you can make in class, even small ones. Discuss the feedback with your coordinator, if possible, to get his or her take on the situation. When a participant delivers this type of feedback to you face to face, listen intently, showing that you take the concern seriously. Avoid becoming defensive! Let the participant know you will reflect on how to address the concern for next class.

Scenario 2: Irrelevant observation

Examples:

I didn’t like that the music today had no vocals. It was instrumental, which isn’t my favorite.  

The instructor doesn’t coordinate her outfits very well. Those orange striped pants don’t look good with that green polka-dot top.  

Why do we have to take up five whole minutes stretching at the end of class? I wish the instructor would shorten that part of class so we could do more cardio or abs.

Sometimes people feel compelled to provide feedback, even if it’s, well, stupid. Go back to the question, “Is there (even a little) truth in this comment that could help me become a better instructor?” Probably not.

With feedback in this category, there might be some truth in the comment itself (e.g., yes, the music was instrumental or your outfit was uncoordinated), but that fact has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities as an instructor. Playing different music or changing your outfit won’t make you any better at teaching.

Sometimes these comments alert you to the fact that additional education is in order. For example, a participant’s displeasure at having to spend time stretching opens up an opportunity to educate your class about the need for well-rounded programming.

How to proceed: If you receive this type of feedback from your group exercise coordinator, you might tactfully ask why. What’s the point? In addition to doing what they can to please participants, coordinators should support and defend instructors when appropriate.

If a participant shares these types of irrelevant observations with you in person, listen but put a cap on your time. Educate when needed. Don’t argue or try to justify yourself—any participant who feels the need to share inappropriate feedback will often find something else to complain about next time. Save your breath.

Scenario 3: Mean and rude

Examples:

She’s too old to be teaching this class.

The instructor looks fat to me—how can he be teaching us about fitness?    

Her voice is whiny. So irritating.

This is the worst fitness class I have ever attended. Fire this instructor immediately!  

Understand that this level of mean-spiritedness is all about the person dispensing the “feedback” and has nothing to do with you or your class. Spend zero time worrying about it.

How to proceed: Coordinators should filter out hurtful written comments so instructors don’t even see them. If a rude participant insults you to your face, you have no responsibility to hear them out like you would with someone expressing thoughtful, constructive criticism. Walk out of the studio with your head high—remember, it’s about them, not you. If you feel the comment is abusive or bullying, immediately report it to club management.

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The Author

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, human kinetics, is a self-employed fitness instructor, presenter and writer in Vancouver, B.C. In addition to being a social media consultant, Amanda tests fitness gadgets, gear and clothes and writes about them on her blog www.FitnessTestDrive.com. Find Amanda at @amandavogel on Twitter and @amandavogelfitness on Instagram. She will be presenting workshops at #NASMOptima 2017 on: 1) social media’s impact on body image and the fitness message, and 2) social media marketing for fitness professionals.